Early Returns Show Rebuilt Yankees Roster Is Money Well Spent

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Early Returns Show Rebuilt Yankees Roster Is Money Well Spent
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One imagines that, like most adolescents, Brian Cashman was told as a young man not to spend all his money in one place. This past offseason, the New York Yankees general manager applied that advice.

Despite being the biggest decision-maker in the Yankees organization (non-Steinbrenner division) and having exorbitant financial fortitude at his disposal to do with as he more or less sees fit, Cashman made one of his tougher calls in his decade-and-a-half as the club's GM when he chose to take a stand and let longtime Yankees star—and free agent—Robinson Cano walk.

By not giving in to Cano, who the Yankees offered a hefty $170 million last winter before he eventually inked with the Seattle Mariners for $70 million more, Cashman knew he would have to execute another plan to get the Yankees back to October after they fell shy for just the second time in 19 seasons in 2013.

John Minchillo
Yankees GM Brian Cashman had to have multiple plans in place during a pivotal offseason.

That plan, as it turned out, involved not spending all of the Yankees' money in one place—on Cano—and instead spreading the wealth to multiple areas of need in a single offseason.

To be clear, Cashman still spent heaping piles of money—somewhere in the range of, oh, half a billion dollars—but rather than tie up too much of it in one cornerstone player, he went after and landed multiple great ones.

First, there was Brian McCann, the former Atlanta Braves catcher who scored an $85 million contract.

Soon thereafter came center fielder and leadoff hitter Jacoby Ellsbury, the longtime Boston Red Sox player who pulled in $153 million.

Veteran outfielder Carlos Beltran, who'd just played in the World Series for the St. Louis Cardinals, came next at the price of $45 million.

And last but not least: Japanese phenom Masahiro Tanaka, a 25-year-old right-hander who was the pitching prize of the free-agent class at $155 million.

What was a dicey decision at the outset of the offseason has been working out rather well so far for Cashman. It's also working out well for the Yankees, who are a season-high five games over .500 at 15-10 and in first place in the AL East entering play Tuesday—the day of Cano's return to New York for the first time wearing a non-pinstriped uniform.

Cano and the Mariners, meanwhile, arrive in New York on a 3-9 stretch, including an eight-game losing streak, that has dropped their record to 10-14, placing them in fourth in the AL West. It's too early to draw any definitive conclusions, but it's not too soon to at least point out the two clubs' divergent paths as the season's first month comes to a close and Cano is temporarily back in the Bronx.

"Going back and playing for the first time against [the Yankees]," Cano told Adam Lewis of MLB.com, "it's going to feel weird."

For the Yankees, though, the start of 2014 has felt anything but weird, even with all of the new faces. As veteran left-hander CC Sabathia told Wallace Matthews of ESPN New York:

I think the chemistry on this team is really good as opposed to the past couple of years. We’re having fun playing and the starting pitching has been great. You don't want to be that guy that messes it up. Just try to keep it going. ...

... It just seems like the team is having more fun this year than last year. We added a lot of good guys, Mac [Brian McCann], Jacoby [Ellsbury], Carlos [Beltran]. It's just a good group of guys this year.

Speaking of that good group, here's how the new Yankees have done so far:

The Yankees' Big-Money Contracts from this Offseason
PLAYER TERMS STATS fWAR
Masahiro Tanaka $155 M, 7 YRS 3-0, 2.27 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 11.6 K/9 1.0
Carlos Beltran $45 M, 3 YRS .275/.316/.538, 11 R, 5 HR, 13 RBI 0.4
Jacoby Ellsbury $153 M, 7 YRS .312/.369/.441, 14 R, 11 RBI, 8 SB 0.3
Brian McCann $85 M, 5 YRS .235/.279/.370, 11 R, 3 HR, 9 RBI 0.2
TOTAL $438 M 1.9

FanGraphs

As for Cano, he's sporting his usual high average of .301, but his other (i.e., power) numbers are down so far. In particular, his meager .387 slugging percentage and .086 isolated power are both deflated compared to his career marks (.502 SLG, .194 ISO), as the lefty hitter has all of five doubles and one home run. All told, Cano has been worth 0.3 WAR so far, per FanGraphs.

Obviously, it's still very early in the season, and the sample sizes are rather minute, especially in the case of a metric like WAR. But at least that—the combined 1.9 WAR by Tanaka, Beltran, Ellsbury and McCann compared to Cano's 0.3 WAR—puts a quantifiable number down to provide some idea that the Yankees' spread-the-wealth approach in favor of ponying up for one player has been to the team's benefit through the first month of 2014.

Ted S. Warren
While the Yankees and their new investments are soaring, Robinson Cano and the Mariners are struggling.

But for a moment, let's put Cano and his slow start aside and focus on the Yankees, since those two entities now are mutually exclusive. The club's biggest benefit is that both the lineup and rotation are now deeper, more diverse and less prone to extended periods where production lags and better able to withstand injury.

Sure, on an individual basis, none of Ellsbury, McCann or Beltran might be quite as good as Cano was last year or over his several years in New York, but the effects of a more solidified one through nine are felt in the form of there being fewer easy outs.

To wit, here's a quick-peek comparison at where the Yankees ranked in the majors in three key offensive categories from last season—when they were forced to give entirely too much time to the likes of Vernon Wells, Lyle Overbay and Jayson Nix—to this one:

Yankees Offense in 2013 Versus 2014
STATISTIC RUNS PER GAME EXTRA-BASE HITS OPS
2013 rank 16 27 26
2014 rank 11 8 7

MLB.com

As for the rotation, just imagine where the Yankees would be now if they hadn't landed Tanaka, the top free-agent arm on the market over the winter.

With stalwarts Hiroki Kuroda (5.28 ERA) and Sabathia still capable but clearly on the decline (Sabathia's 4.78 ERA through five turns matching last year's end-of-season figure); Ivan Nova, who appeared to take a big step forward in 2013 (3.10 ERA), now out for the season while he recovers from Tommy John surgery; and Michael Pineda getting himself into sticky situations, New York's five-man rotation would be in shambles if not for Tanaka, who has been as steady as he has been spectacular so far.

Granted, the Yankees are the rare franchise in Major League Baseball with the financial flexibility to let one $240 million franchise star go but still survive—even thrive—by bringing in multiple other players earning eight and nine figures.

Had the Yankees gone all out to keep Cano, though, spending upward of $250 million to beat the Mariners' offer, that would have hindered their ability to bring aboard all of the others—Tanaka, Ellsbury, McCann, Beltran—and the roster depth and veteran presence that comes with them.

That spread-the-wealth path is the one Cashman ultimately chose to go down over the offseason, and the early returns are promising. Who knows: Had the other possibility played out, maybe the Yankees would be where the Mariners are now, under .500 and hoping that Cano finds his former form. Fast.

Otherwise, the Mariners are going to start wishing they hadn't spent all of their money in one place—especially while the opposite strategy is paying off for Cashman and the Yankees.

 

Statistics come from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, except where otherwise noted.

To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter:

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